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Seeing the world, degree by degree

The concept is simple enough: Degrees of longitude and latitude intersect all over the world. Get to each intersection, record the trip in pictures and share them. An online project is recruiting volunteers to do just that.
Louis Schilder / Degree Confluence Project

The plan, Curt Christiansen says, was to visit his girlfriend in North Dakota. He did not expect to spend a March day trudging through wheat fields, searching for the precise intersection of 47 degrees north and 98 degrees west. But when the Alaska native, an avid hiker, went looking for some geographic data online, he found a challenge: an open request for volunteers to track down points of confluence, where the latitude and longitude grids meet. He hunted down his first, and was hooked.

Christiansen, 41, a purchasing agent for the Alaska Community Development Corp., quickly became a volunteer for the Degree Confluence Project, a non-profit Web project meant to document everywhere on Earth that a degree confluence -- where a whole degree of latitude intersects a whole degree of longitude -- can be found on or near land.

In the three years since he tracked his first confluence, Christiansen has hunted 28 more in Alaska and the northern continental United States.  He found every excuse to go for a trek: More visits to his girlfriend Monique, now his wife, gave him a chance to wander through the northern Great Plains and Minnesota. For his bachelor party, he and a groomsman visited 10 points in three days. He has a trek to an Alaskan confluence set for mid-July. "Joining in gave me a 'destination' for a given trip," Christiansen says.

It was a similar realization that gave birth to the entire project, which was founded by Alex Jarrett, a programmer in Northampton, Mass. Jarrett, who also runs a recycling service, began in 1996 with a visit to his first confluence -- 43 degrees north, 72 degrees west (43N 72W in geo-speak) -- in the New Hampshire woods, simply curious about what would be there. There was no marker or monument, but he found the trip worthwhile and a good excuse to use his Global Positioning System receiver and tromp around outside. Jarrett posted the find on his Web site; a few like-minded folks soon found his postings and contributed their own.

Soon after, a friend suggested Jarrett grab the domain, and entries kept slowly trickling in -- "I never really promoted it," he says -- until it was featured one day by Volunteers arrived by the hundreds. A new hobby was born.

The concept is simple enough: Degrees of longitude and latitude intersect all over the world. Get to each intersection, record the trip in pictures and share them.  With 360 degrees of longitude around the globe and 89 degrees of latitude north and south, plus the equator, that meant 64,442 confluences.  (The poles -- 90N and 90S -- count as a single confluence, though both contain all 360 degrees longitude.) By subtracting some points that were too near each other and others that were located on open water, that left about 14,000.

A worldwide effort
Volunteers have a simple set of rules to follow. The visit must be within 100 meters of the actual location to count as successful. Maps and a compass are recommended, and a GPS device is usually carried to verify the location, as well as a camera to record what the spot looks like.

Jarrett and other project coordinators -- all volunteers themselves -- verify the submissions for accuracy. There are no ads on the site, which is hosted by the University of North Carolina, and no one gets paid.

About 20 percent of the 12,000 spots have been recorded so far, in more than 120 countries, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, both poles and every continent in between. There are even special postings for the intersection of the equator and the prime meridian (0 longitude, 0 latitude) and the point where the equator and the international date line meet (0 longitude, 180 latitude), but they're considered honorary since both are on water.

The eager participants include geographers and sailors, local trekkers and folks like Christiansen who plan trips to include their hunts. One point in Pakistan was bagged by a U.S. Army team that used a Huey helicopter to chase down their point as part of a training exercise.  Jarrett is especially heartened by the new interest from local teams that want to chase down nearby confluences, making the project a truly international effort.

So much land ...
The site offers a striking view of the world. Some confluences are located near a city (New Orleans, for example) but the remote locations of most confluences underscore humanity's erratic habits as we spread across the land, or perhaps simply remind us that an orderly system for subdividing the world has little to do with where we actually live. Most locations serve as proof of how much remote terrain still exists, and a reminder that what may be geographically notable could also just be someone's rice paddy or fence.

Confluences recorded on the site include stunning locales from the Yukon to Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter and everywhere in between -- northern Mongolia, Amazonian Brazil, even Antarctica.

Tales of adventure
The real gems on the site, though, may be the stories that volunteers tell of their treks.  Because the confluences are based on geographic math rather than any natural boundaries, they are merely a random sampling of locales, a methodical way to document the Earth.  The stories behind that sampling have become an informal history of travel through countries and cultures. As Jarrett puts it: "Not only do you get to see what the confluence was like, but you get to see the interaction between the person and the confluence."

Jarrett, for example, points to the travels of volunteer Targ Parsons, who has organized a series of confluence hunts through mostly rural China, bagging dozens of points along the way. The narratives written by Parsons and his companions include endless details of hired vans, begged rides on motorbikes, noisy hotels, rain-soaked hikes and the occasional snake.  (One brief example: "Finally, covered in dust and nearly asphyxiated by exhaust fumes, I arrived in Xintang, three kilometres east of the confluence. As I was paying my fare to the driver, we got to talking, and when he learned of my goal, he offered to take me as far as he could to the confluence. This turned out to be just 400 metres away.")

'People to meet'
Parsons' travels also underscore one of Jarrett's favorite elements of the project -- the chance for volunteers to meet new people and enlist their help. Confluence hunts are filled with offers of helpful (and occasionally diverting) directions and even the occasional meal.

"Most of the news and media we read gives a sense there's all this unfriendliness and it's dangerous," Jarrett says, "and reading these stories, sure there's some danger, but there's quite a lot of safe places and people to meet."

Not everyone is friendly: Volunteers have shied away from some mostly off-limits points -- a protected watershed in Washington state,  an Ohio uranium processor or  the Nevada Test Site, for example -- but many private landowners are willing to lend a hand, and the project site includes a form letter for volunteers to take with them that explains the purpose of the visit.  Needless to say, some countries remain mostly unexplored for political reasons.

After seven years, new entries still come in almost every day. The stories always vary, but they contain the same common curiosity. As Jarrett and some of his helpers like to think of it, the project is an alternative means of tourism, a way to explore the world using arbitrary destinations rather than the usual, planned vacation spots. 

"Instead," Jarrett says, "you're just picking this sort of random point and saying, 'How about here?' and 'What will I find?'"

That random point could be just down the road or a world away. Dozens of countries have yet to receive a single visit -- Albania, Lebanon, Panama and Tonga, to name a few -- and Jarrett also encourages volunteers to visit confluences that have already been recorded and see what's different.  He wants the project not only to record the world at a specific point in time, but to keep resampling the same points again and again as a way to see how it changes.

Jarrett has no real archival plans for the project, though he has thought about publishing a coffee-table book.  But clearly, it could become a sort of ecological imprint that can be passed into the future. Or as volunteer Curt Christiansen puts it: "A hundred years from now people will be able to see what the world looked like in our time."